BEIT SAHOUR, West Bank (Reuters) - In the land where Jesus lived, Christians say their dwindling numbers are turning churches from places of worship into museums.
And when Christian pilgrims come from all over the world to visit the places of Christ’s birth, death and resurrection, they find them divided by a concrete wall.
Members of the Abu al-Zulaf family, Palestinian Christians, have left the hills and olive groves of their village near Bethlehem for Sweden and the United States, seeking a better life than that on offer in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Pope Benedict, worried about the shrinking Christian presence in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, has called a synod of bishops this month to discuss how to preserve Christianity’s oldest communities in the Middle East.
The special assembly considered a Vatican document which said Christian emigration is “particularly prevalent because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the resulting instability in the Middle East.”
Ayman Abu al-Zulaf, 41, moved to France in 1998. But he returned to Beit Sahour, the village where he was born, a year later. “I needed to be here, not in France,” he said.
“Without Christians, the Holy Land, the land of Jesus, has no value.”
That’s his message to Christian pilgrims he meets through his work as a tour guide. “Christians have a very major mission here in Palestine. We are the bridge to the West,” he said.
Today, Christians make up just 1 percent of the mainly Muslim population of the Palestinian territories, said Hanna Eissa, who is in charge of Christian affairs in the Palestinian Authority’s religious affairs ministry.
In 1920, they were a tenth of the population of Palestine — land where today Israel exists alongside the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians remain stateless.
Decades of conflict, shifting borders and occupation are the root causes of the poor economic situation that is forcing Christians to seek better lives abroad, Eissa said.
Rising Muslim fundamentalism, a trend across the Middle East, concerns some. But most cite Israeli occupation as the prime cause of emigration and the decline of their community.
“If there was no political problem, the economic situation would be good, so the problems are linked,” Eissa said.
In Bethlehem alone, the Christian population has slumped to 7,500 from 20,000 in 1995. Then, the Middle East peace process had created hope that a Palestinian state would emerge alongside Israel. Some Christians who had left came back.
Sandra al-Shoumali, Abu al-Zulaf’s sister, and her husband were among those who invested at the time. They thought peace was imminent and saw a prosperous future in a new state. But talks collapsed in 2000 and several years of violence ensued.
“There was no work, no way to live,” she said. “Our family has been scattered,” she said. They moved to the United States. She is visiting Beit Sahour for the first time in two years.
Abu al-Zulaf knows personally of 50 people who have left Beit Sahour in the last decade. “When I talk to them, they say: ‘We want to come back, but there is no work there’.”
He holds Israel responsible for the departure of Christians. “The occupation is menacing everyone’s existence,” he said.
His tours take in Palestinian refugee camps as well as conventional pilgrimage places, such as the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus’s birth. “Our resistance is through staying here and sensitizing people,” he said.
The economy has improved since the Second Intifada, or uprising, abated. Tourists have returned, but their path to Bethlehem from Jerusalem has been complicated by the West Bank barrier Israel has constructed on the grounds of security.
Abu al-Zulaf has not been to Jerusalem since he was 19 years old. He was jailed by Israel two decades ago because of activism in a previous uprising. “Jerusalem is the core of Christianity and as a Christian you are deprived of going there,” he said.
“I am lucky to have seen Jerusalem,” he said. “There are people here who have never been.”
“I am not optimistic because I don’t think things are going to change. I don’t trust the leadership on either side.”
Additional reporting by Mustafa Abu Ganeyeh, editing by Alistair Lyon